[Note: The following was first published in the August 2012 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]
Copyright © 2012 Don H. Meredith
Well, it has come to pass. The Fish and Wildlife Division, as an identifiable entity in government, will be no more. It was a long-time coming, really. While many of us saw the writing on the wall, most hoped it wouldn’t happen. After all the Fish and Wildlife Division has been around for over 50 years and Albertans know it well as the place to go for information about the resource and its use. The Fish and Wildlife brand was as solid and trusted as any in government. But as Bob Dylan sang, “the times they are a-changing.”
Although the gradual demise of the division had been occurring for decades, this round of final blows began in October 2011 when new Premier Alison Redford announced her first cabinet. Buried in the background documents was a notice that fish and wildlife officers would be moved from the Fish and Wildlife Division to what is now the Alberta Justice and Solicitor General Department. If there was one image of the Fish and Wildlife Division in the field, it was the fish and wildlife officer. He or she represented the authority of the division and was the person with whom most people talked about licensing, wildlife problems and the importance of fish and wildlife conservation to the province. Even though the government insisted the connections between enforcement and the division would remain, everyone knew a fundamental relationship had been broken and the already lame division was now seriously crippled.
In May, newly elected Premier Redford announced her second cabinet and that Sustainable Resource Development was amalgamated with Environment and Water to form the new Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (ESRD) Department. Then on June 28, an internal e-mail message from Dana Woodworth, Deputy Minister of ESRD, to all department staff outlined the structure of the new department. There will be seven divisions: Strategy, Policy, Operations, Corporate, Forestry, Integrated Resource Management Planning, and Transformation and Integration. All old Environment and SRD divisions will be broken up and distributed into this structure. In other words, no one division will speak for fish and wildlife.
In a personal communication, Rick Blackwood, Assistant Deputy Minister of the new Transformation and Integration Division which is overseeing the transition, told me the Forestry Division was being temporarily retained because of its commitments in the current fire season, and that forestry will move to the new structure in due course. He hopes to see the transition concluded by the summer of 2013.
To be fair (and as a former Fish and Wildlife employee who tried to understand bureaucratic thinking), I can appreciate what the department is trying to accomplish. Back in the early 1990s Premier Klein similarly combined environment with forestry, wildlife and parks in one “super department” called Environmental Protection. That department survived for a few years but soon broke down under its own weight. It was difficult for one minister to stay ahead of and handle the variety and volume of issues generated. The bureaucrats will tell you it was also because there was no true integration in the department. Environment staff continued doing air, water and waste things, and wildlife staff continued doing fish and wildlife things with little communication between them. In bureaucratese, the “silos” were brought together without breaking their structure and creating new silos from the elements of the old. So, this time they decided to do just that and as a result we have the bureaucratic division names: strategy, policy, operations and corporate.
Now, it is true that lands, forests and wildlife are part of our environment, and as such it would appear their management would fit in the same department as air, water and climate change. However, the businesses of each of these areas differs in many ways, from the way science is done through how resources are allocated to the kind of relationships struck among staff and with stakeholders. Will changing the structure of the bureaucracy change these businesses? Most likely, but will it benefit the Alberta citizen whom the government is supposed to serve?
“The new departmental structure will be based on a far greater desire for integration in resource management decision making,” Blackwood explained. “This means that consideration for the province’s fish and wildlife resources must now take place across all new divisions rather than just in one. As an example, when the department works to develop policy, the policy must now consider not just one facet of our business but how that policy may affect all facets of our business, including fish and wildlife.” In other words, decisions about fish and wildlife will not be made in isolation but in conjunction with concerns in lands, forests, air and water.
The “Fish and Wildlife” brand has been around a long time. It was the fledgling Alberta Fish and Game Association that prodded the Alberta government in the early 20th century to create a game branch to look after dwindling game populations. Over the years, that branch bounced from department to department (e.g., Agriculture, Lands and Mines, Lands and Forests) and its name changed to Fish and Game Branch to reflect its growth in responsibility. Finally in 1959, it became the Fish and Wildlife Division, a name that reflected broader thinking that the resource was more than just game. Although the division continued to shift from department to department, its name stuck for 53 years.
What’s in a Name?
Branding is that portion of marketing that seeks to imprint the name of a specific product or service in the mind of the consumer. For example, when I was growing up my parents didn’t use a vacuum cleaner, they used a Hoover. The Hoover company was a pioneer in the home vacuum cleaner industry and early on established its name as the brand to buy. Similarly, Coca Cola, Nike and iPad have established themselves as brands to buy for their respective products. They did this through creative marketing and providing a consistent name, logo and quality of product and service that distinguished them from their competitors. Whether by plan or default, the Fish and Wildlife Division has done the same with its name over the decades to establish itself as the go-to place for information about the resource. Will that brand be lost with the reorganization?
Blackwood assured me that some form of the brand will remain. For example, despite their transfer to the solicitor general department this spring, fish and wildlife officers’ “vehicles and uniforms are clearly marked with the fish and wildlife title and we are not aware of any desire or intent to change that.” He also stated that “Our departmental field offices will continue to handle fish-and-wildlife related matters as they have done in the past and those now under the control of Solicitor General will do the same as a part of our Memorandum of Understanding with Solicitor General.” Whether those offices will retain the Fish and Wildlife name remains to be seen.
Reorganizations are disruptive to the people and programs being reorganized. Projects are put on hold as staff meet, discuss, change offices and establish new relationships. Other costs are monetary. New letterhead and business cards must be printed; emblems on uniforms, signs on offices and buildings and decals on vehicles must be changed.
One of the intangible costs of a reorganization is what happens to the morale of the people doing the work. One of the benefits I found working for Fish and Wildlife was the camaraderie among the staff. From the lowest level clerk through the officers, technicians and biologists to the ADM, there was an esprit de corps that I saw in no other government offices. People genuinely cared about the work they did, and felt privileged to be employed in that effort. Esprit de corps is not something you can order. It is earned over a long period of time and provides incalculable value to the service provided. Can that spirit be carried over or built again in the new organization?
Many of these and other questions await to be answered as the reorganization is an ongoing work-in-progress. One thing is certain: the traditional ways government has managed our natural resources are changing. “Our focus from a fish and wildlife perspective,” Rick Blackwood said, “has indeed grown from a historical focus on largely game animals and sport fish to a much wider view of our province’s biodiversity.” The key term here is “biodiversity”. Instead of fisheries and game management taking precedence, the new divisions will be looking at the larger picture, where maintaining the variety of plants and animals on the landscape will be the priority when evaluating development projects, the status of species or setting bag limits. Is this good for Albertans and the fish and wildlife resources they cherish? That remains to be seen as the government is treading new ground. However, I think it is safe to say that hunters and anglers will have to work harder to affect government policy.